chapter  6
33 Pages

French Judaism reinvented and the Enlightenment disputed

Standing at the beginning of this study, and acting as its foundation, is the

curious conjunction of Voltaire and a stubborn Jewish presence, which he

confronted in a highly aggressive way. We have traveled a great distance in

time from Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance to Michael Walzer’s On Tolera-

tion,1 from a pre-liberal and pre-democratic world to a world that, at least

in its Western parts, congratulates its liberal democratic self on leaving

behind some of the most egregious examples of state and clerical power.

More important is the way in which, from Voltaire’s time to our own, discussion of difference, whether of religion or race, may, without overlooking

cultural and political change, find antecedents in the objections Voltaire

made against arbitrary power and religious zeal. Voltaire’s lengthy travels

into history and early anthropology are, however, largely left unread and

untended, except among Voltaire specialists. His world of Jews and his

Enlightenment may be studied for the light on how the ‘‘Jewish Question’’

may be seen in our own time. Voltaire’s importance is not confined to the

academy, but his renown in the popular imagination rests principally on his masterpiece, Candide, a few of his other contes, the Dictionnaire philosophi-

que, as well as the Treatise on Tolerance. These works explain his impor-

tance and justly bring him back more fully to the realm of the living, and

acknowledge him as the thinker who set in motion some of the key ideas

that are at the center of the continuing debate on what might be called,

‘‘Where do we go from here now that we have had an Enlightenment?’’ Or,

to put it differently, are we still living in an age of enlightenment if only

because we are not living in an enlightened age?2 This question lies behind Rene´ Pomeau’s and Haydn Mason’s tributes to Voltaire in 1994 marking the

three-hundredth anniversary of his birth.3 Most of all, they seek to remind

us of how his skeptical mind and passionate outrage bore on religious

fanaticism and the slaughters it condoned, and how he might have reacted

to the unanticipated resumption-this time on a vaster scale and a wider

compass-of clerical obscurantism and fundamentalism that seems to have

found new life among major religious confessions.